Dads who exercise before having children have healthier kids

With so much emphasis on mothers, turns out fathers have to be equally vigilant in their habits.

Man carrying baby while hiking
Photo: Derek Owens / Unsplash
  • A new study shows that a father's exercise program influences the genetic expression of their children.
  • Male mice that ate a high-fat diet and exercised had healthier children than sedentary males eating a regular diet.
  • This could have important consequences for the health of infants moving forward.

Parental influence on their children happens long before they're even born. We've long known how important a mother's diet is for the health of her baby; we know well the dangers of smoking and drinking. Classical music might not make your child smarter, although music—such as, it turns out, the Village People—does have an effect on fetuses.

While mothers have been under scrutiny for some time, the father's role has been less studied. For example, most of the blame for infertility falls on women, yet nearly half of all couples unable to reproduce are due to problems with men.

Wexner Medical Center physiology and cell biology researcher Kristin Stanford has now provided another important clue about infant health: exercise. In a study recently published in the journal, Diabetes, she says that men who exercise within a month of conception produce healthier babies.

The study featured two groups of mice. One group was fed a high-fat diet for three weeks; the other, a more balanced diet. Each group was split into two: one group remained sedentary, the other had plenty of exercise. After their children were born, the infant mice were given regular diets, but remained sedentary. The result:

The researchers report that adult offspring from sires who exercised had improved glucose metabolism, decreased body weight and a decreased fat mass.

The worse-performing group of children was produced by sedentary fathers on a high-fat diet. Exercise, Standford notes, negated that effect—the combination of exercise and a high-fat diet led to healthier children than sedentary fathers on a regular diet. Movement matters.

Incredibly, exercise changes the genetic expression of their offspring. Laurie Goodyear, who co-led the study, says this could have important consequences on children moving forward.

We're now determining if both parents exercising has even greater effects to improve metabolism and overall health of offspring. If translated to humans, this would be hugely important for the health of the next generation.

Photo: Jude Beck / Unsplash

It's easy to shake our heads at old movies featuring cigarette-smoking mothers—even more so when we see it today—but the influence we have on our children is becoming more important given all the developmental problems occurring due to poor exercise and dietary habits. Early onset diabetes is linked to the microbiome—your genetic expression directly affects your children, and yes, the food you eat matters. Another recent study shows that breastfeeding is not only better for babies, it reduces the risk of various types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis in mothers.

With so much focus on the mother, emerging evidence on the father's role is important. Though the long-standing myth that marijuana use affects fertility rates has been debunked, male obesity, for example, has a profound effect on the health of children. Standford notes,

We know that in adult men obesity impairs testosterone levels, sperm number and motility, and it decreases the number of live births. If we ask someone who's getting ready to have a child to exercise moderately, even for a month before conception, that could have a strong effect on the health of their sperm and the long-term metabolic health of their children.

Of course, the health of parents should be considered for their own sake first, given the rigors they'll have to endure during the first few years of their child's life: lack of sleep, rearranged schedules, a host of lifestyle changes that will challenge them. Yet exercise is never the wrong solution. As it turns out, it plays an essential role in every stage of development, even at the very beginning.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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